Commerson’s Dolphins


Commerson’s Dolphins:
Steve Heath carves a majestic, wave riding mammal… the Commerson dolphin

Steve Heath carves a majestic, wave riding mammal… the Commerson dolphin

Dolphins make great subjects for the beginner and more experienced woodcarver, and I find myself returning to them time and again. I aim to capture the graceful energy of these animals while trying to reflect something of their social nature, which is why I tend to carve them in groups of two or more.  For this project I have chosen the Commerson’s dolphin, a strikingly patterned little cetacean with a penchant for cold-water surfing. I have painted my carving as I aim to achieve a realistic representation, but you may choose to go with a natural finish.
These templates of a female adult and calf Commerson’s dolphins are an amalgamation of various images. I avoid copying a single image because this throws up copyright issues and limits the design of the finished template. As always the importance of research cannot be overstated, search images of your subject and watch videos too. Familiarity with the shapes and movement of the animal will bring insight to the carving process and make for a better finished piece.

Things you will need
• 6mm coarse grit typhoon burr and/or
carving knife and/or No.5, 5mm palm gouge
• No.5, 3mm palm gouge
• No.39, 1mm or No.39, 2mm V-tool
• 2mm and 3mm black semi-circle glass eyes on wires
• 1mm wood drill bit
• 4mm fine diamond ball burr
• Scalpel No.3 handle size 11P blade
• 120, 240, 320 and 400 grit cloth-backed or abranet abrasive.
• Two-part fast setting(five minutes) epoxy adhesive
• Sponge – natural or synthetic
• Acrylic paint: titanium white, burnt sienna and French ultramarine blue
• Pencil and eraser
• Masking tape
• 5mm wooden dowels
• Lemonwood (Calycophyllum multiflorum) for the dolphins
• Yew (Taxus baccata) abstract mount
• Walnut (Juglans nigra) block


1. This is a small carving, but it will work well on a larger scale. Just scan or photograph the templates, then resize and print. I’ve chosen lemonwood due to the size of the carving, but lime (Tilia vulgaris), sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) or any light fruitwood will work just as well

2. Draw the lateral and dorsal outlines on the timber blank, taking care to ensure the features line up accurately; tip of nose on one side to tip of nose on the other, and the tip of the fin to tip of the fin, etc. Cut out the lateral outline. Tape the blank back together and cut out the dorsal outline making sure the loose components of the blank remain aligned. I’m not keen on this technique for asymmetrical animal carvings, where the head is turned as an example, but dolphins tend to be fairly symmetrical. I use a bandsaw for both techniques, but I will admit that spinning bandsaw blades, for all their cutting efficiency, make me nervous especially when I’m cutting out small projects. Consequently I avoid cutting right up to the edge preferring to leave a margin of a few milimetres, which I can reduce with hand tools in a more controlled fashion

3. Using the templates re-draw the dorsal and lateral outlines. The red diagonals indicate waste to remove. A typhoon burr is to be used to cut the waste back to the dolphin’s flank leaving a square outline of the flipper standing slightly proud and extending below the abdomen

4. Use a 6mm typhoon burr to remove this last few millimetres of waste down to the outline. Alternatively, a knife or shallow gouge will do the trick

5. It’s a good idea to leave the space between the front flippers (marked in red diagonals) to provide strength during the carving process. Now re-draw the centre guideline from nose to tail along the back and the abdomen

6. Transfer the outline of the eye and the mouth from the template to the blank in pencil using dividers to maintain accuracy. View the carving from the top-down and front-on to ensure the eyes and the mouth align on both sides. Keep rubbing out and re-drawing until you are happy. Care taken with the face at this stage will result in a more convincing and engaging finished carving

7. Use a shallow gouge, knife…

…or a typhoon burr to round off the square flanks ensuring symmetry along the length of both dolphins

8. Repeat the same for the underside of both dolphins, rounding and softening the edges. Along with misaligned facial features, ‘boxiness’ is a common error that can let down an otherwise good wildlife carving

9. Using an inverted and very sharp, shallow gouge, outline the egg shaped orb of the eyes. Carefully carve the bulge of the eye in relief using a pair of dividers to maintain symmetry of the eyes on the faces of each dolphin. A disposable scalpel is a useful tool for fine shaping and scraping the eye orb smooth

10. Use a scalpel or shallow gouge to further shape the rostrum or beak. Unlike the more familiar long rostrum of the bottlenose dolphin, the Commerson’s beak is barely more than a slight bulge beyond the forehead

11. A 1 or 2mm V-tool can be used to define the mouth. As you can see, the space between the flippers has been removed, but keep the flippers thick until the last minute for strength

12. Use a burr, shallow gouge or carving knife to round the leading edge of the dorsal fin and taper the trailing edge. This will produce the classical symmetrical hydrofoil when it is viewed in the cross section. Evolution hit on this design long before engineers. It will make structures exposed to water flow both streamlined and strong

13. Shape the top edge, between the dorsal fin and the tail flukes, into a thin, rounded ridge with the same tools used to shape the dorsal fin. A similar ridge appears from the anal area on the underside narrowing to a point midway between the tail flukes

14. If necessary, redefine the flukes and flippers using the template and carve down to the outline. Using a burr, well-honed shallow gouge or knife, shape the rounded leading edge of the flukes and flippers tapering down to a sharp trailing edge; in cross-section a variation of the hydrofoil shape is used for the dorsal fin. Start with a 120 grit cloth-backed abrasive or abranet and work through 240 and 320 grit, finishing with a 400 grit. Avoid working at blemishes and tool marks with abrasive, you’ll be there for hours and will often end up with an unsightly dip. Instead, use a scalpel or similar razor sharp edge and scrape or carve away wafers of wood until the mark has disappeared, remembering to work with the grain. Now move through the grits of abrasive, from coarse to fine, and the area will blend with the rest of the finish

15. I decided to use glass eyes bought from an online taxidermist supplier. For the 1/8 scale I was carving in, I used a 2mm and 3mm black half circle glass eye on a wire for the small and large dolphin respectively. Drill a hole using a 1mm drill bit to a depth of approximately 5mm and cut down the wire to about 4mm. Use a 4mm circular diamond burr and make a very shallow depression in the drill hole, ensuring the 2mm and 3mm eyes for the calf and adult dolphin sit slightly proud. Using a five minute two-part clear epoxy adhesive, carefully countersink the eye in the depression

16. For finishing, I prefer to apply acrylic paints using natural sponge, but a brush or spray gun can produce effective results. Alternatively, you could use stains or beeswax and leave the finish natural. On the subject of painting I have, in the past, found myself conflicted. Wood is such a beautiful natural substance, it seems a shame to cover it up. I personally struggle to find a method of colouring the carving in a way that is both realistic, but preserves the appearance of woodgrain. I have developed a technique that I feel strikes the balance between keeping the integrity of the wood and depicting realism, but see what you think. I should add that I didn’t develop this technique in splendid isolation, but pieced it together from my own trial and error and by adapting the approaches of other carvers. Begin by diluting white acrylic with water until it is as thick as full fat milk. Use a natural sponge to gently dab the paint all over the dolphin, avoiding any heavy blobs of paint. Dry at room temperature or using a hairdryer on a cool setting

17. When the acrylic is dry, gently rub the surface with a fine denibbing pad. This will expose the grain in parts and distress the finish. Repeat the process, denibbing between each coat, until you have a silky smooth finish with ‘lost and found’ areas of grain

18. With a pencil, lightly sketch in the outline of the black areas, ensuring symmetry. I have drawn an underside template to guide you as this surface does not appear on the original templates. Sponge or brush in a mixture of burnt sienna and blue ultramarine acrylic denibbing between coats. Oddly, true black is not common in nature. Mixing your own black (closer to a very dark grey) gives a more natural and less flat, uniform finish. Remember to wipe any paint off the glass eye with a damp cotton bud and beware of scratching the eyes with the fine denibbing pad. The dolphin is a pale grey. This can be lightly sponged on using a mixture of white and the very dark grey. Although the adult appears to have large areas of white, you will note fine passages of sponge-dabbed very dark grey/white mixture. Remember to keep your paint well diluted, but not watery. It’s a good idea to practice this technique on a sanded offcut before starting to paint your carving. Don’t despair if there is a problem with your painting. Acrylic when everything is dry will rub off using a 120 grit abrasive and work through the grades of abrasive and start again

19. Cut out a square or rectangle block of wood to act as a base. Any timber will do providing it has the weight and size to support your carving without overwhelming it. Find an offcut of timber with a distinctive grain. I used yew, but pine (Pinus spp.) or ash (Fraxinus excelsior) or elm (Ulmas spp.) would work well and create an abstract, undulating shape and sand to a silky finish. The holes in the ‘water’ add to the fluidity. Match up a point on your dolphins’ flanks with a point on the abstract shape. Ensure the dolphins can be mounted without encroaching on each other and that the abstract shape touches the flank of your dolphin in a way that hides the dowel completely. Flatten the abstract shape at the point of contact with the dolphin until a snug fit can be made. Mark the point of contact on the dolphins and abstract shape with a pencil and drill a 5mm deep hole at these points. Fix the dolphin to the abstract shape using wooden dowels and a two-part, five minute clear epoxy adhesive (I used 5mm wooden dowels cut to 8mm length with a hacksaw). Masking tape is good for holding the carvings in place while the glue cures as it doesn’t mark the finish. Use another dowel and epoxy adhesive to fix the base to the abstract shape. Leave the paint and glue for at least 24 hours to cure, then polish with a clear beeswax to a high sheen. All done. Hopefully the areas of grain will appear in subtle patches through the translucent grey or white


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